In less than a week, a mile wide asteroid named Persephone will strike planet earth. Impact is inevitable. At best, a direct hit may cause tsunamis, fiery hail storms, and the onset of the next ice age. At worst, the instantaneous demise of all humankind.
No, this is not real life, thankfully, or this article would probably be on the front page of the news section. It’s the premise of “Tumble & Fall,” the newest book by Martha’s Vineyard author Alexandra Coutts, released in September by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The young adult novel comes at a time when “Hunger Games” mania has launched an onslaught of apocalyptic and dystopian sagas. But “Tumble & Fall” is not a run-of-the-mill teen science-fiction read; it’s surprisingly grounded in its real, believable characters.
The book rotates through the lives of three main characters, all presumably in their late teens.
Sienna resides at a halfway house, learning to cope with self-destructive behaviors after her mother’s death. But when the news of Persephone comes, Sienna’s father sweeps her away to their once vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard. Sienna struggles to reintegrate into family life with her father and his new fiancée, Denny, but a reunion with a childhood flame complicates matters, and leaves Sienna questioning which of her passions are real, and which are the destructive behaviors of her past.
Zan is still reeling from personal tragedy — the untimely death of her boyfriend, Leo — at the onset of world’s end. Then, a mysterious note appears from the day Leo died, sending Zan and Leo’s best friend Nick on a wild goose chase that could lead to potentially heartbreaking revelations.
Finally, there is Caden, the product of an alcoholic mother and an unexplainably absent father. Caden spends most of his nights getting high on the docks and sleeping on the beach. Then, one morning he wakes up in a strange place, where a traffic light tells Caden he’s not on Martha’s Vineyard anymore.
“Tumble & Fall” is littered with such fine details as the traffic light, so that it feels like a scavenger hunt for Martha’s Vineyard insiders. There are community center potlucks, young career fishermen in beat-up pickup trucks, and beach parties at a certain spot near a certain brickyard. Ms. Coutts orients the reader in a real Martha’s Vineyard, not one of science fiction.
For Sienna, Zan, and Caden, the Island is the backdrop for the end of the world. Although they deal with common adolescent struggles, such as the delicate balance between romantic love and family, there is an obvious urgency to make amends. With all the hunger of youth, the characters scramble to understand their world before it comes to an end. But in order to do so, they must resolve their pasts. Because with Persephone approaching, the past may be all they have.
Q&A with Alexandra Coutts
“Tumble & Fall” is the third book from Island author Alexandra Coutts. She wrote the two-book series “Wish” and “Wishful Thinking” under her maiden name, Alexandra Bullen. A summer resident since she was three years old, Ms. Coutts moved to Martha’s Vineyard permanently in 2006 after completing her graduate and undergraduate degrees at NYU. Now, with a new husband and a new baby, Ms. Coutts told the Times about her new book, and the new beginnings that might occur at the end of the world.
How long did it take to write Tumble & Fall?
About two years. I had my baby right in the middle. I did most of the writing while I was pregnant, and most of the revising after.
How is this book different than your others?
There are actually more similarities than I thought there would be. I have a tendency to write a lot about character, then I gravitate towards big ideas. In the “Wish” series, there is the fantasy element of the magic dresses, and in “Tumble & Fall,” there is the big science element of the asteroid. I like putting normal people in extraordinary situations, but I enjoy being able to ground the story and without the magical elements.
How did you get into writing young adult fiction?
I kind of stumbled into it. I went to school for dramatic writing, and I was working for a playwright, but I needed a more steady job. So I started working at Alloy Entertainment, who was doing young adult books. Also, all my plays had been about older teenage characters, and it was really where my voice was. I was 18 or 19 at the time, so I was writing my own experiences. I guess I still haven’t grown out of it.
How do you feel your background as a playwright has affected your fiction?
It was a huge challenge. I love writing dialogue, and my first drafts of books were always lines of dialogue. I had to learn how to fill it out, and put my characters in scenes instead of trusting they would be seen, like in a play.
How is Tumble & Fall different from other teen science fiction reads?
For better or worse, it is not actually a science fiction book. That genre is hugely popular in the young adult book world. But the story is very character driven, and it focuses on teenagers who are forced to face the fact there’s nothing they can do.
Why did you set Tumble & Fall on Martha’s Vineyard?
I love writing about the Island, I’m addicted to writing about here. I think this place gives unique perspective to any story, because it has its own character. It helps to serve stories.